The Reichstag Building, Berlin, Germany … ‘from dark past to brighter future.’
At first sight it looks like a spaceship has landed on the roof of the historic Reichstag building in Berlin, Germany. The main building has been restored several times but kept it’s distinctive appearance on the outside, although the inside has been modernized, it’s the dome roof structure that stands out in stark contrast to the historic structure below.
Before I go deeper into the newer structure, it’s worth finding out a little of the history to put the two in perspective. The original building, in the style of Italian High Renaissance, was completed in December 1894, the final stone of the 13,290 sq meters being laid by Kaiser Wilhelm II. The inscription ‘Dem Deutschen Volke’ on the main entrance was added in 1916 and is translated as ‘To the German People’.
The political hub of Germany, the Reichstag building suffered a major destructive fire in February 1933, which was blamed on the Communist Party (Van der Lubbe, confessed, was found guilty and executed), however there have always been suspicions that the fire was Hitler’s way of consolidating power and several top officials later pointed the finger of blame directly at the Nazi Party (specifically Goering and Goebbels).
The Reichstag building ceased to be used as the seat of government (which switched to the Kroll Opera House). The Reichstag building was heavily damaged during the 2nd World War and the division of Germany into East and West left Berlin 100 miles inside East Germany, but the building was in the West of Berlin, under the jurisdiction of the Western Allies.
The Reichstag building was eventually reconstructed and although completed in 1964, the cupola was too damaged, so was demolished and not replaced. When the Berlin Wall finally came down late in 1989, the decision was made to return the seat of parliament to Berlin (from Bonn) and with it the building would be fully restored. It was a British architect, Sir Norman Foster, who in 1992 won the architectural competition to reconstruct the building to once again house the German Parliament.
Restoration of the Reichstag Building
Architect Norman Foster originally wanted a parasol-esque building, not a dome, but his original design was rejected, partly due to the unrealistic costs. The design of the dome was at first controversial but has become accepted as one of Berlin’s most important landmarks. The public desire to retain the potent reminder of history meant it couldn’t be entirely demolished; however this had to be balanced with the desire not to glorify its past symbolism. With the ‘democratic style’ as a blueprint, the new building was gutted down to its exterior walls and a dome of glass and steel was added to symbolize the light and transparency of an open democracy.
Two ramped walkways spiral up the inside of the glass dome, taking visitors up to a viewing platform 40m (130ft) above the ground. There is a restaurant and viewing area on the rooftop which has a panoramic 360 degree view of the city.
The ceiling above the chamber is transparent allowing the public to view the proceedings of their parliament below, adding to the openness and transparency of their elected government.
The Light Sculptor
Natural light is deflected to the interior via a complex array of mirrors in the center of the dome. With a total of 360 individual mirrors, this system provides bright daylight in the plenary chamber 10m (33ft) below. The cylinder of mirrors also provides ventilation for the debating chamber. The used air passes upwards via an air extraction nozzle by thermal up-draught and leaves the building through a central opening in the dome.
Completed in 1999, the re-constructed Reichstag is an example of sustainable renovation – proving that with the aid of modern technology, a historic building can be converted from an energy guzzling building into an energy saving one. Before the installation of new services the building consumed enough energy annually to heat 5,000 modern homes; and raising the internal temperature by just one degree on a typical mid-winter’s day required a burst of energy sufficient to heat ten houses for a year.
Now rather than burning fossil fuels, The Reichstag runs on renewable ‘biodiesel’ – refined vegetable oil made from rape or sunflower seeds. Together with the increased use of daylight and natural ventilation, this has led to a 94 per cent reduction in the building’s carbon-dioxide emissions. The building is also able to store and recycle surplus energy, using underground seasonal energy reservoirs. The Reichstag now creates more energy than it consumes, allowing it to act as a local power station supplying heat to other buildings in the government quarter.
To be able to go up to the roof and walk around the dome, ascending the spiral walkways listening to a self-guided tour on a headset is all free, however you will need to book online ahead of your visit and bring proof of your identity (such as your passport) to gain entry. (You can actually register at the service center on site but the queue will be very long and must be at least two hours in advance of your visit).
You can also do a free guided tour of the inside of the building and (if the Bundestag is sitting) watch the live debate proceedings and trust me you can virtually reach out and touch the parliamentary members from the gallery – although of course I wouldn’t recommended doing that! To do the guided tour and watch a sitting you will need to register online at the Deutscher Bundestag website. It’s easy to do, you select which tour you would like to do and complete the registration form. If approved they will send you a document to bring with you authorising your visit and again you must bring some form of identification such as your passport.